We argue that the introduction of non-native extant tortoises as ecological replacements for extinct giant tortoises is a realistic restoration management scheme, which is easy to implement. We discuss how the recent extinctions of endemic giant Cylindraspis tortoises on the Mascarene Islands have left a legacy of ecosystem dysfunction threatening the remnants of native biota, focusing on the island of Mauritius because this is where most has been inferred about plant–tortoise interactions. There is a pressing need to restore and preserve several Mauritian habitats and plant communities that suffer from ecosystem dysfunction. We discuss ongoing restoration efforts on the Mauritian offshore Round Island, which provide a case study highlighting how tortoise substitutes are being used in an experimental and hypothesis-driven conservation and restoration project. The immediate conservation concern was to prevent the extinction and further degradation of Round Island's threatened flora and fauna. In the long term, the introduction of tortoises to Round Island will lead to valuable management and restoration insights for subsequent larger-scale mainland restoration projects. This case study further highlights the feasibility, versatility and low-risk nature of using tortoises in restoration programs, with particular reference to their introduction to island ecosystems. Overall, the use of extant tortoises as replacements for extinct ones is a good example of how conservation and restoration biology concepts applied at a smaller scale can be microcosms for more grandiose schemes and addresses more immediate conservation priorities than large-scale ecosystem rewilding projects.